Everglades National Park through the Arts

By Bill Maxwell for South Dade News Leader

Caterina Tiazzoldi folds over palm fronds.
Caterina Tiazzoldi folds over palm fronds.

In 2000, when the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was approved, powerful stakeholders were paying close attention. After all, CERP’s goal was to capture unused fresh water that flowed to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and send it to regions desperately needing it.

Donna Marxer, an artist and poet in New York City, also was paying close attention. Born in Dade County in 1934, Marxer knew that the park was an ecologically vital region that was starved for fresh water.

And she knew something else: Art can deeply affect people’s everyday lives, and artists should be an integral part of restoring the Everglades. The answer was a residency program that would bring artists, called “fellows,” into the park to live and work. Knowing that residences were already in 27 other national parks, she had a blueprint for what would become the highly competitive Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE).

Now in its 14th year, AIRIE brings 12 artists each year from around the world for month-long stays in a furnished studio in the heart of the wilderness. The fellows are permitted to shadow scientists doing research in the park.

A Life-Changing Experience

The significance of the artists’ relationships with scientists and their being exposed to the park’s complex ecology cannot be overestimated.

“AIRIE’s mission has been to advance the recognition of the park as a national treasure and to advance the recognition of the artists through their association with the park,” Marxer said. “That mission has become more refined since the beginning as the park has become more endangered. Because of AIRIE, there will be a lasting documentation of the park through the arts that were created there. The staff loves having artists there, and the fellows have loved being there. I hope it will be a lifetime experience for them as it has been for me.”

Anne McCrary Sullivan, poet, naturalist and teacher, was an AIRIE fellow in 2003. She became a member of the AIRIE Board of Directors soon afterward and remains on the board.

“I went to the Everglades, and I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with a place that would feel like home though I had never been there before,” she said.

When she does public readings, at least one person usually approaches and expresses a new-found desire to visit what had been considered a scary and undesirable place.

“This is a response I love,” she said. “I believe that artists can offer representations of the Everglades that are richer, more complex, and more personal than the images of terrifying snakes and alligators generally proliferated by mass media. Art can serve as an expressive reminder that we are connected to and part of the nature that parks strive to conserve. We are connected in ways both tangible and intangible. Support for preservation of the Everglades is dependent upon public understanding and appreciation. Artists can and do make significant contributions to that sort of public desire to preserve.”

Healing And Creativity In The Park

Caterina Tiazzoldi, the current AIRIE fellow, is a professor at Columbia University and the principal of the interdisciplinary architecture and design practice Caterina Tiazzoldi Studio. The New York-based firm has won many international awards, and Tiazzoldi’s work has been featured in the world’s elite publications.

These triumphs, however, belie the intimate dimension of her relationship to AIRIE and Everglades National Park. She discovered the River of Grass after her father died.

“My boyfriend and I were spending time on Miami Beach, and I found that I didn’t have it in me to be surrounded by such an environment,” she said. “So I suggested that we go to the Everglades to see the alligators instead. I found the Everglades to be a healing sanctuary for me during my grieving process. Two years after my father’s death, this place still holds a special place in my heart. As I spend this month here working architecturally with shapes and geometric elements and involving visitors and volunteers, I experience the park’s beauty as a place to rest and restore and heal.”

In true AIRIE tradition, Tiazzoldi brings her work to the public both inside and outside the park.

“The Everglades is abundant with patterns and shapes,” she said. “It is a magnificent playground for me to work in as I think of creative solutions to problems. The park rules were that only palm leaves on the ground and in a prescribed area could be gathered. This ‘problem’ became a fun way to interact with and involve teenage volunteers to engage in the park in a way that is fun, creative, and also respectful and honoring of the delicate ecosystem that is here. The park rules educate the visitors I interact with on how to coexist with the life in the Everglades, allowing them a chance to experience how the park can be meaningful in their personal lives.”

AIRIE Cultivates Inspired Leadership

From 2010 to 2014, Christy Gast, a contemporary artist based in New York and Miami, was AIRIE’s president.

When she moved from New York to Redland near Everglades National Park in 2010, she got involved with Miami’s thriving arts community and soon became a part of AIRIE. She learned that many artists were unaware of AIRIE and its month-long residency.

“When I had artists visit from New York and elsewhere, I would take them to the Everglades, and they were absolutely astounded, wanting more time there,” she said. “I realized that I could work to make the residency more known among artists. Now that AIRIE is producing more exhibitions and outreach programs, I think we are connecting the art community with the Everglades in a really interesting way. Artists by nature are very curious. They are exploring the archives and shadowing scientists in the field, asking different sorts of questions than ecologists or science professionals might ask, and their curiosity is contagious.”

When Gast recently resigned as president and moved back to New York, Executive Director Deborah Mitchell, a painter and photographer, took charge. A lifetime explorer of the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve, Mitchell quickly expanded AIRIE’s community outreach.

“The ArtCenter South Florida, Florida Atlantic University, the Museum of Florida Arts and Culture, the Miami Book Fair and PinecrestGardens have all helped raise the profile of AIRIE, which is generously supported by the Knight Foundation,” Mitchell said. “Several new board members also spend time counseling the fellows in their field of expertise.  By nurturing these highly creative individuals who have earned a spot in one of the nation’s unique residency programs, AIRIE has been able to encourage responsible stewardship among this generation of artists.”

AIRIE’s biggest challenge, like that of many other nonprofit organizations, is funding. Mitchell and others are looking for grants and generous donors who recognize AIRIE’s role in restoring the Everglades and creating an archive of the park’s value.


Bill Maxwell is a volunteer writer for the 2016 Centennial celebration of the founding of the National Park Service. He is writing articles about Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Dry Tortugas National Park.